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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / The Rev. Timothy Careathers, senior pastor at Westside Missionary Baptist Church, delivers his sermon to his church on March 22, 2020. The pastor is leading his church through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis as businesses throughout the country shut down and people are left without income during a global pandemic.

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Chattanooga churches struggle amid coronavirus crisis

The Rev. Timothy Careathers was supposed to be on sabbatical.

The senior pastor at Westside Missionary Baptist Church was supposed to be spending a month for himself in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Then the coronavirus hit Tennessee.

On Sunday, Careathers returned to the pulpit feeling his sermon would not be as good as it could. He was rushed with the ever-evolving COVID-19 news cycle. He was rusty from his time off, he said, joking with those gathered in the mostly empty church.

He then turned his attention back to the cameras livestreaming the service on social media to deliver his message.

Careathers' sermon emphasized the faithful could not deny the reality of the coronavirus threat nor the nervousness many were feeling. Nor could they lose their faith and succumb to fear, he said.

"Fear does not come from God," Careathers said. "You got it though, but it didn't come from God. You feel it sometimes, but the origin is not God."

Careathers admitted to his virtual congregation he was scared about the coronavirus, too. He has parents who are vulnerable. There are people in his church who are at risk. Being a pastor does not mean he has some special version of the Holy Ghost that makes him exempt from anxiety, he said.

The church will still tend to the needs of the community in this crisis, Careathers said. Those needs will grow. His church, along with its nonprofit the Net Resource Foundation, will still feed the hungry, clothe the needy and educate the children, he said.

But the house of God needs help.

"We love you and we thank you," Careathers said in closing the service. "Give, give, give. Please give. We need you like we've never needed you before, and we're not too proud to ask."

Across Chattanooga, the collection plate is still being passed, just digitally. Churches are posting reminders to Facebook or including them in weekly newsletters — tithes and offerings are still needed, even when the church doors are closed.

The money is needed. Churches throughout the region are working harder than ever. They are buying equipment to transition their weekly gatherings to livestreams or video call prayer meetings. Beyond attending to spiritual needs, they are revving up efforts to help their struggling neighbors. They are leading food drives for children who were dependent on the lunches of the now-closed schools. They are assisting in a virtual phone bank to check on elderly neighbors.

In their sprint to help, though, houses of worship risk running themselves too thin to address the monthslong, and likely the yearslong, impacts of COVID-19. Faith leaders are working overtime, but they are asking for donations from a population experiencing its own trials of layoffs, mounting bills and struggling family members.

In the uncertain times of the coronavirus, Chattanooga's houses of worship face the same haunting question thousands of residents are confronting: How long can we survive like this?

 

'LESS WILLING TO GIVE'

The long-term economic impacts of the coronavirus are already being felt.

The city, Hamilton County and Tennessee all declared states of emergency over the coronavirus in the past weeks. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Burke suspended public gatherings of any size indefinitely, including worship services, funerals, festivals and fairs. Children are no longer in school and tourists are no longer coming to the city. Some of Chattanooga's largest employers have shut down and even small businesses, such as barbershops, have been forced to close.

The shuttering of Chattanooga mirrors a nationwide trend — a step necessary to address the pandemic, but one economists fear is triggering an unprecedented economic collapse.

Last week, a record 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, nearly five times the number in 2009 during the worst week of the Great Recession. More than 39,000 people in Tennessee filed last week, and applications this week overwhelmed Alabama's filing system.

Careathers weathered his church through the last recession. The church took a hit, he said, but nothing close to what his congregation could go through in the months and years ahead.

A 2015 study in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business found church giving in the United States fell significantly during the Great Recession and took years longer to recover than giving to nonprofits.

Rutherford Cardinal Johnson, professor of business at the University of Minnesota Crookston and author of the study, said while it is difficult to forecast the depth of impact COVID-19 will have, he expects churches will see a significant drop in giving, especially since business closings will hit low-income people particularly hard.

When times are uncertain and people are scared, they are less willing to give, Johnson said.

"In any kind of difficult time, and especially in a recession, people want the church services more. They want the help. They need the spiritual support, whatever they may need," Johnson said. "But they are less willing to give, even if they may have the money, because they feel less secure about giving money to somebody else."

The deeper the recession, the longer the recovery will take, he said, and even when businesses reopen, churches may still feel the pinch. People with new disposable income are likely to give to health care or medical research organizations in the wake of the coronavirus, Johnson said.

 

WORK IN THE COMMUNITY

Chattanooga residents are stepping into the midst of the crisis to address some of the most pressing local needs. County and state leaders worked to get a lab at a local high school certified to test for the coronavirus after two scientists there taught themselves the testing method. A Facebook group has become a hub for residents to post what they need or offer to help their neighbors. People are mobilizing to deliver meals to students and their families.

Since 2015, The Net Resource Foundation has done similar work in neighborhoods throughout Chattanooga's Southside. The nonprofit operating out of Westside Missionary Baptist feeds the hungry in the area, provides clothing and runs an afterschool program. The organization served more than 1,000 meals and worked with more than 50 children in the past year.

The Net Resource Foundation's work is ongoing with the new coronavirus, just with necessary changes to follow social distancing guidelines and keeping people safe. On Wednesdays throughout April, the organization will hand out pre-packaged meals to people in need.

Reginald F. Smith, executive director of the neighboring Bethlehem Center, said his organization often collaborates with the foundation to share resources or space for their youth enrichment programs. In a normal year, the two groups take children to Camp Lookout during spring break. During the summer, the Beth uses the church's kitchen to cook meals, Smith said.

The Net Resource Foundation is already operating on a small budget, $41,000 a year, according to the latest tax records. Westside is a major financial contributor to the nonprofit. If donations from individuals or the church dwindle, the Net's years of work in the community would be in jeopardy.

 

HOW ENDS ARE GOING TO MEET

People look to the church for guidance and stability during times of national crisis. Pastors are still offering that today, just now through the screen of a smartphone or tablet. The messages from the pulpit must find a balance between an encouragement of faith and a sober look at the threat, Careathers said.

"I feel the burden of trying to be a steady hand," Careathers said. "They look at me for that, for direction and answers, when the reality is that I have the same questions that they have. I'm getting the news when they're getting it."

Beyond providing spiritual care, the Westside pastor is essentially the CEO of a company. Careathers is on the board of directors for the Net Resource Foundation. The church employs seven people. Many of them rely on Westside as their sole source of income, Careathers said.

They are worried. So is he.

"If I got to take the hit first, I will," Careathers said. "... Hopefully, it don't come to that and, hopefully, we can take a small hit. But since the future is uncertain, I don't know how that's going to work."

In spite of the fear, church folk are resilient, Careathers said. His congregation has had an optimistic response to the uncertainty. They revamped the church website and established online giving. They found ways to livestream the Sunday service. The Net continues to do its work.

Yet the coronavirus changes the nation every day, if not every hour. Careathers knows if his church will continue to serve those in need he will need to ask for donations. But he will be asking a struggling city.

"Everybody is trying to [figure out] how their ends are going to meet," Careathers said. "It's a faith journey that we have never been on before."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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